SID SALTER: Flow of oil spill litigation gushing faster than BP’s oil

The one thing that may well keep pace with the spewing oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico is the gusher of litigation that’s beginning to surround British Petroleum (BP).
First, there’s the matter of the 11 deaths that resulted from the April 20 explosion and inferno that engulfed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast. Next comes the injuries to the survivors of the accident.
Then there’s the mountain of lawsuits that will be generated from the length and breadth of the Gulf states from individuals and business interests who have suffered losses of all kinds because of the oil spill.
But the most protracted litigation will likely be the environmental litigation. Class action and individual lawsuits have already been filed against BP and those lawsuits will grow with each passing day and each additional gallon of oil that fouls the Gulf.
BP’s general counsel on Friday sent a letter to the five state attorneys general along the Gulf Coast, assuring them that his company will pay claims quickly and not require claimants to sign release of liability forms to receive payments.
In early May, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood joined his counterparts in the Gulf states to form a coalition to coordinate their legal efforts to jointly to protect their states’ threatened natural resources, coastal businesses and state fiscal resources.
The Gulf States Coalition’s members, in addition to Hood, are Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, Alabama Attorney General Troy King, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.
Reacting to the formation of the Gulf States Coalition, BP said the company “takes responsibility for responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill” and pledged to “pay all necessary and appropriate clean-up costs.”
Hood testified before the House Judiciary Committee on May 27 and told members he wants to fight BP in state court rather than federal court to get Mississippi reimbursed.
“If we’re going to fight, I want to fight in state court,” Hood said. During his testimony, Hood warned of what he saw as the dangers of allowing “corporate wrongdoers” to retreat to federal court as a means of stalling state litigation.
“When companies are allowed to remove to federal court every action brought against them in state court, as is routinely practiced, it causes a breakdown in the system due to overloaded federal dockets,” Hood testified. “When it is a state itself who is the plaintiff party in interest, this encroachment on state sovereignty is a particular insult.”
The Exxon Valdez oil spill – which prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident was the largest oil spill in American history – saw litigation stretch longer than a decade. The difference is that the Deepwater Horizon spill is significantly larger and not as geographically contained as was the Exxon Valdez.
The plethora of litigation that has and will arise from the Deepwater Horizon spill will be complicated by the sheer scope of the expected environmental impact. Clearly, the flow of litigation would be multiplied exponentially by the one real nightmare scenario that could make the current ecological disaster even worse – the development of a large hurricane that plows over the oil spill and into the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Imagine a storm surge the size of the Hurricane Katrina storm surge carrying oil and dispersant pounding the already battered Mississippi or Louisiana Gulf Coast – or imagine the one perfect storm that replicated Katrina’s flooding in New Orleans.

Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com, where Salter is Perspective editor.

Sid Salter